December 5, 2017 § 27 Comments
Flash memoir is much more difficult than “only 750 words” suggests. As readers, we see finished pieces. Work that’s had a writing buddy or teacher or group say, “I don’t understand that bit,” or “There’s a problem there. Fix it.” But as writers, we’re wading through the murky middle, trying to believe in the Santa Claus of “All the professional writers you love write terrible first drafts! So terrible they will never show you!”
Without seeing, it’s hard to believe.
That’s where reading for a literary magazine (if we can) or reading fellow writers’ work in a group or class serves us. We get to see the pages that need another draft. As a freelance editor, I see similarities in short nonfiction-in-progress. Often, pieces don’t resolve, or don’t have the key story moments of beginning, middle and end. Sometimes the narrator tells what they experienced instead of making the reader feel what they felt. But the most common challenge in flash essays is the very last line.
About half the essays I see could cut the last line, sometimes even the last paragraph. The other half need a sharper, tighter, cleaner “button” to make even a short piece feel satisfyingly finished.
Why so many problems at the end? Perhaps as writers we subconsciously need to be certain our point is made. Maybe we’re so used to slogging forward it’s hard to stop that inertia at word 739. Maybe we honestly don’t know where the story ends. Great endings are often deceptively simple, so we may not have felt a need to work on that element of our craft.
This example is mine, for the purpose of this post—but I’m copying the structure of the issues I see most often.
[Imagine this finishes an essay about a couple visiting India, trying to get on a blocked-off beach to watch the sunset. They’ve irritated each other throughout the story in small ways; he wants to protect/insulate her, she wants to be a little dangerous/culturally insensitive.]
The policeman tried to stop us, but I’d yammered at him in English I knew he didn’t understand and ducked under the plastic tape. “He won’t shoot us, we’re tourists,” I said, and Mark ducked under, too, his face twisting into sorry at the cop and exasperated with me. We sat on piled broken concrete on the dirty beach while the sun vanished behind an oil tanker.
How can we wrap this sucker up, in a way that says something emotionally meaningful happened here, and it was a big enough deal that we bothered to write about it?
Some things to avoid:
- Don’t summarize.
The rest of our trip had been terrible, too—if only I could have made this evening work, maybe I could have made our marriage work.
That’s when I knew I had to leave him if I was ever going to enjoy my life.
- Don’t explain.
I hated that he wasn’t ready for the adventure I wanted my life to be.
Even in India, we were destined to clash, our different backgrounds never letting us truly understand each other.
- Don’t justify.
As the sun set, I realized I couldn’t stay with him—I needed a partner who didn’t judge me.
If he didn’t want to travel wild, he shouldn’t have gone with me, and I wasn’t taking him any further.
- Don’t excuse.
I wish I’d been nicer, but I was twenty, still unaware of privilege easing my way, unappreciative of what Mark meant by “relax honey, just relax.”
Thank goodness I outgrew that stage, even if it did take until our 40th wedding anniversary.
Summarizing and explaining are subconscious manifestations of our fear of not writing well enough. They tell the reader, I’d better spell it out for you in case you aren’t smart enough to get it. Justifying and excusing say, I haven’t fully examined my role in this situation; I know I’m not the hero but I don’t want to be a villain, and they tell the reader, I’m not truly ready to write about this yet.
Instead, use the last line to either gently enfold the reader in your confident arms, or rip off their bandaid. You could:
- Take one step further than the reader thought you’d go. Go to a higher/deeper emotional level.
I wished one of us would fill our pockets with ragged cement shards and step into the waves.
[NB one line too many is a challenge for every single writer no matter what level, because I originally added It would be easier than breaking up, then realized that was one too many.]
- Twist. Show us the opposite of everything the narrator has felt or done so far.
I wanted the cop to say no, I wanted Mark to say no, I wanted someone—anyone—to stop me, send me home, tell me where that was.
[I don’t love the “that” in the last line, so I’d wrestle more with that in a real essay.]
- Admit guilt/fault/complicity.
“See, it’s fine,” I said, and we both knew it wasn’t—it wouldn’t ever be.
Mark’s shadow slumped on the sand, and I missed the man I’d ruined.
I reached for Mark’s hand, and we squeezed hard, each hoping we were doing something right.
Sure, there are other ways to end a flash piece strong (feel free to share examples in the comments!) But these are some techniques to get started. Once the emotion is on the page, sharpen your pencil and ask of your last line, what purpose do you serve? Let the sentence tell you if it belongs.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She just returned from scouting locations in India for a May 2018 writing workshop, hence this example.